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Normally, minivans aren't associated with luxury. Perhaps they should be, since even an entry-level van is more comfortable and roomy than many "near-luxury" cars and SUVs - particularly SUVs. Since minivans are designed from the start for space efficiency and passenger comfort, rather than towing and off-roading, they can archive miracles in space, comfort, and efficiency. Meanwhile, their massive volume - particularly at class leader Chrysler, which still makes roughly two out of every five minivans sold - brings economies of scale, so that you can actually buy a good van for $15,000 - or a great one for $37,000.
Our test vehicle was a 2002 Dodge Grand Caravan with just about every conceivable minivan option: a DVD player (with a roof-mounted screen), three power doors, the 3.8 liter V6 engine, and all wheel drive. Yes, that's right, all wheel drive. Chrysler has been offering this opinion in minivans for well over a decade.
The current generation of Dodge minivans has simply amazing handling, easily outracing many cars around the track. All wheel drive only adds to the experience, giving confidence in wet weather and snow. It's even handy in dry weather - stomp on the gas while making a sharp right turn on uneven pavement, from a stop, and see how many sports cars can get moving without a squeal. But the Grand Caravan just zooms around the turn, with no apparent loss of traction and no noises.
AutoStick - the manumatic that lets you control the gear changes - was, surprisingly, standard on our van, with a new, more convenient stalk-based control. Nudge the switch up, and you up-shift; nudge it back down, and you downshift. Simple and easy, with no need to move your hand from the steering wheel. The computer will override your choices if needed to save you from destroying the transmission or stalling the van. AutoStick is useful in some conditions, but most of the time, we left it off. It did help in conditions where we wanted more responsiveness, (as did the easier-to-use overdrive defeat button), since the 3.8 liter engine makes most power in higher rpms.
Acceleration is good and carlike, and the 3.8, a derivative of the first generation of Chrysler V6 engines, has been around long enough to establish a strong reputation for durability and reliability. Its size helps it to provide good power with no hesitation, and no need to constantly rev high. The only real drawback of the 3.8 is its thirst for fuel, and that might party be a function of the all wheel drive in this case.
The transmission helps the engine by downshifting quickly and very smoothly as needed. We were surprised by the shift quality, especially since we've used this transmission so many times before, and it was good, but not this good. Perhaps that's a result of more fine-tuning, and perhaps the new transmission fluid developed by Chrysler is helping. (If you buy one, be sure to use the correct transmission fluid - Dexron is a definite no-no). Either way, just about the only way to tell when the van was downshifting for power was to listen for the engine or watch the tach.
Despite class-leading traction, the ride is minivan-like if a bit firmer than some. Most bumps are easily absorbed, while enough road feel comes in to give feedback to the driver. Rough pavement does not intrude into the cabin, as either noise or unwelcome vibration, though very bumpy roads do make themselves felt - perhaps more than in some of the Chrysler minivans, and certainly more than in the Chevy Venture (which has considerably less capable handling). The Grand Caravan's balance between ride and handling is usually only achieved by vehicles with an active suspension - something not used on any Chrysler vehicle. The ride is not quite as good in the rearmost seats (not surprising), which also are not as comfortable as they could be. But the front two rows feel quite good.
Visibility is excellent, superior to most SUVs. The wipers are unusually effective, and a rear washer-wiper was standard on our model. We always like the unusual wiper defroster, a set up heating elements underneath the windshield wipers to remove ice and frost. We wish that was an option on every car, but it's not even available on most SUVs, which are supposedly designed for bad weather.
The interior is full of clever gadgets and controls, which are, fortunately, very well organized. The climate control system, which has three different zones - driver, front passenger, and rear - is actually easier to figure out and use than the single-zone system in the Neon. Each zone is thermostatically controlled, using a clever infra-red sensor trained on the driver's (or passenger's) skin. Huge ducts allow the vent fan to be turned up to high speed without making too much noise.
The instrument panel is minivan-functional and includes a tachometer, which is handy given the AutoStick. All of the controls are designed to be as user-friendly as possible, and all have the feeling of quality which reviewers normally only admit exists on Japanese and German cars.
The overhead console includes a trip computer that allows programming of a large number of features, such as door locking and unlocking, (other things). In its spare time, the trip computer provides a compass, thermometer, gas mileage, and other information. There are also buttons for built-in garage door openers, and for each of the power doors: left, right, and rear.
The rear hatch opens and closes under power, first emitting some loud beeps to warn people nearby. Each of the power doors will automatically stop and reverse itself if they sense an obstruction, making them probably safer than power windows. The power sliding doors can also be activated from the key fob, and from buttons inside the van, for maximum convenience. New to the concept is a "ajar closer" - if you shut the door by hand, but don't shut it all the way, the van will take over and close it the rest of the way. You can decide how convenient the power sliding doors are, but we think they sure come in handy in the rain. If the power gear ever fails, you can always close them by hand. (In fact, most of the time we closed them by hand - though, in putting the kids into the car in the rain, we understood why it's nice to be able to remotely open the side doors.)
The rear seats are "flip and tumble," making them easy to fold down and out of the way of cargo. They are also easy to remove and replace, with a clever indicator to make sure you know when they are in - or not quite in.
Overall, the Grand Caravan keeps its lead - in our humble opinion - over both domestic and imported competitors. Yes, the Odyssey has an edge in horsepower, but the Grand Caravan feels like it has more torque, which is after all more important in a van. We'll stick with the original - the first minivan.
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